Seianti Hanunia Tlesnasa: what did she really look like?

A reconstruction has been made of the head of Seianti Hanunia Tlesnasa, an Etruscan noblewoman and owner of a fabulous painted sarcophagus in The British Museum.

Seianti's skull, like the rest of her skeleton, was extremely well-preserved. Staff at the Unit of Art in Medicine at Manchester University used soft tissue measurements to build up the face on a plaster cast of the skull, a forensic technique originally devised to create images of otherwise unidentifiable human remains for police investigations.

Seianti was about fifty years old at the time of death, as shown by an examination of the dentine of her teeth at the University of Wales Dental School. The defect in her jaw and other distortions down her right side may indicate severe injuries received in adolescence. This damage and the strongly-developed muscle attachments in her thighs have led a pathologist to suggest that Seianti was a keen horse-rider who suffered a major accident, perhaps involving her horse falling on her. Over the years the resulting arthritis led to increasing inactivity and thus to a gain in weight.

The reconstruction reveals a striking similarity in the features, though the ancient artist has made her somewhat younger and prettier. He may well have referred either to the facial features of Seianti herself or perhaps to an earlier portrait of her. The implication is that some at least of the representations on Etruscan sarcophagi and cinerary urns bear true resemblances to the dead.

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